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Don't Freeze Us Out on Drilling

We Alaskans resent outsiders telling us what to do with our land.

June 10, 2002|KARL FRANCIS | Karl Francis, an advisor to the city council of Kaktovik, Alaska, on environmental, oil and gas issues, is a former professor of northern affairs at the University of Toronto.

I was reminded the last time I drove the Alaska Highway that Fairbanks is a long way from Los Angeles, about 4,000 miles. But that is hardly an excuse for the recent spate of articles, editorials and letters about Alaska and its people in the debate over drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The good people of Alaska have been portrayed as pawns of the oil industry, bought off by dividend checks that are somehow profane. To the contrary, those checks from the Alaska Permanent Fund are one of the Alaska Legislature's wisest and most socially responsible acts. By paying every Alaskan a modest return on the investment of oil revenue that belongs to them, the state has ensured the long-term interest of these people.

No other oil province, nation or state has been so successful in protecting its future. Rather than an incentive for more drilling, this fund protects the investments already made from oil already found.

In a sense, the dividends are progressive taxes. They return money to every Alaskan--man, woman and child--in equal amounts. A family of eight gets twice as much as a family of four. In rural Alaska, that makes a big difference to what President Kennedy's domestic poverty program chief Sargent Shriver once described as the "poorest place in America." Life is much better now. People are not rich, but they are surviving and making progress toward decent lives.

For those in the other 49 states who think they love and know best how to manage Alaska, I would ask this: Where were you last winter? I was on the Arctic coast with my friends and neighbors. We were there because it is home. It is the source of all meaning and beauty, the very core of who we are. We don't make our living someplace else and then vacation here for one week in the summer.

In order to live there, I once managed a huge environmental research program for a consortium of companies that proposed to build a 48-inch gas line from Prudhoe Bay, 6,000 miles across Canada to both coasts of the contiguous United States. Mostly we studied the creatures of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Our investigators were some of the finest scientists in North America, including people we borrowed from state and federal agencies.

We planned to have little or no impact on caribou or anything else. The federal environmental impact statement said as much, as did the federal administrative law judge who reviewed it. We planned to bury the refrigerated line in permafrost in the winter. By spring we would be gone. By the end of the summer the surface would have fully re-vegetated, with our help.

As important, we planned to clean up much of the mess left by various federal projects. Once done, the land would have been nearly as pristine as some proclaim it now to be.

There is much more. Alaska's North Slope is a big place with much history. It has a people, the Inupiat, the native people of this place. It is their homeland we are talking about in the drilling debate. They just want their rights and their homeland respected.

Ask them what they think about all this, about what is best for them, for their homeland, for the caribou and for their people. There is a terrific story in this if someone would look for it and not just parrot romantic but ill-begotten rubbish written by people who want to make this land into something it has not been--at least not for many thousands of years--a wilderness. People who live here, work here and live off the land are offended by the notion that their home is a wilderness.

The North Slope of Alaska is full of people, as full as it can be. To call it wilderness is the height of arrogance and disrespect for the people whose homeland it has been for millenniums.

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